Irish American soldier’s letters from Vietnam war finally make it home

Sergeant Steve Flaherty

More than 40 years after dying while serving his country in the Vietnam war, Sergeant Steve Flaherty’s letters to his loved ones have been returned to his family in South Carolina. His letters, which had been used as propaganda in Vietnam during the war, were returned in exchange for a Vietnamese soldier’s diary.

The Daily Mail and the Associated Press report on Sgt. Flaherty’s letters long journey back home to his remaining family in South Carolina.

In what serves as a hugely symbolic act between the US and Vietnam, once sworn enemies, Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh and the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta received Sgt. Flaherty’s letters in exchange for a Vietnamese soldier’s diary.

The Vietnamese have also agreed to open three new sites in the country for excavation by the United States to search for troop remains from the war. While 980 US troops have been identified in Vietnam since 1973, another 1600 are still unaccounted for.

Sgt. Flaherty perished in March 1969 while fighting with the 101st Airborne. His letters, addressed to his mother, a girl named Betty and another woman named Mrs. Wyatt, detail the dangers and terrors he and his fellow troops faced while fighting.

“I felt bullets going past me,” Sgt. Flaherty wrote to Betty. “I have never been so scared in my life.”

“We took in lots of casualties and death,” wrote Sgt. Flaherty. “We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget.”

Indeed, Sgt. Flaherty had grown familiar with death. He wrote how his “platoon started off with 35 men but winded up with 19 men when it was over.” Sgt. Flaherty would serve as a temporary platoon leader replacement before he died.

“This is a dirty and cruel war but I'm sure people will understand the purpose of this war even though many of us might not agree.” Sgt. Flaherty’s words were written when back home in the US, the American population was becoming hotly divided on the issue of war in Vietnam.

Officials said parts of Mr Flaherty's letters were read in propaganda broadcasts by the Vietnamese during the war. His letters was discovered when Vietnamese Colonel Nguyen Phu Dat, who had Sgt. Flaherty’s letters in his possession, mentioned them in an online publication.

Robert Destatte, a retired Defense Department employee who had worked for the POW/MIA office, noticed the publication. The Pentagon then began to work to get the letters back to Sgt. Flaherty’s family in Columbus, South Carolina.

“I had a very emotional morning all over again,” said Sgt. Flaherty’s sister-in-law Martha Gibbons, 73, “But it was a wonderful emotion this time. It's good for both countries. It's good for all the soldiers who were killed for both countries.”

View the MSNBC video of the story here: